Hamilton restaurateur approaching Stage 3 reopening with mixed emotions

The executive chef and owner of a Hamilton hospitality group that runs a number of local restaurants says he’s going into Stage 3 of Ontario’s COVID-19 reopening plan with ‘mixed emotions.’

Matthew Kershaw from the hospitality group The Other Bird, whose restaurants include the Burro, the former Rapscallion Rogue Eatery and The Mule taco bar, says the organization is not sure what to think about this Friday’s opportunity.

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“I know as much as everyone else does,” said Kershaw.

“Obviously we listen to all the medical experts out there and we take it really seriously. All of our staff are very invested in making sure everyone is safe, especially our own staff.

Kershaw says despite efforts in making a safe dining experience at the group’s restaurants, he’s still not sure the general public will be up for coming out to dine.

Kershaw and company were negatively impacted by the pandemic in March. He said tough conversations were had with his business partner CEO Erin Dunham about the group’s future.

“Okay, are we closing things, certain places down immediately? Are we bankrupting things immediately?” said Kershaw, “Because you have to be realistic. You see some of the buffet restaurants, I don’t see them ever coming back anytime soon.

“So we had similar conversations and financially it’s been very unpleasant.”

Rocco Rossi, chief executive officer of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, says he understands the plight of full-service restaurant businesses like Kershaw’s.

Rossi says the sector in Canada was “hit hard” by the pandemic.

“They’ve been just hammered for the last several months up to their ears, many of them in debt and lots of restart costs because they’ve got to get P.P.E (personal protective equipment),  they’ve got to reconfigure their places. They so desperately need help.”

In late June, a Statistics Canada (StatsCan) study revealed that full-service restaurants bore the brunt of the COVID-19 fallout, losing 57.6 per cent in sales since April, while employment in the accommodation and food services industries dipped to 50 per cent below its pre-COVID level for February.

Rossi believes going forward, governments at all levels have to give some sort of handout or help to restaurants to get them back on their feet.

“At the municipal level, abatements are no property tax or not hammering people with a patio, licence fees and other fees,” Rossi said.

“At the provincial level, allowing that emergency measure that permitted those with licenses to be able to sell alcohol for takeout — you know, make that permanent, give them that opportunity for a little bit more margin.”

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As part of the Stage 3 safety protocols, indoor diners will have little room to move once inside a restaurant. The province’s orders include patrons having to stay seated at an establishment when eating or drinking. Customers will also have to be at least two metres between other patrons unless separated by plexiglass and will have to wear a mask when leaving their table.

Kershaw says the future will be very “touch and go” going forward which is something he’s gotten used to over the last few months, having his eateries relegated to take-out order over the last four months.

“So bringing in this new thing on Friday is another step in the same thing,” Kershaw said. “We were making these educated guesses and safety of our employees is foremost and the customers.”

He says tables will be removed from the group’s restaurants with the remainder moved around into a configuration that “feels right” and he says the mask protocol will be strictly enforced.

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“We’re not going to relent. If you don’t want to wear a mask with us, then go somewhere else,” said Kershaw.

Another variable in the group’s return is staffing since the province’s recommendations suggest full service restaurants limit the number of workers on-site and stagger work schedules.

Generally, Kershaw says, his staff appear to be okay with that, as many only want to return gradually so that they can still qualify for some unemployment benefits from the federal government.

“The lion’s share of people, they look forward to coming back to work. It’s nice to have something to do and something tangible like putting smiles on people’s faces.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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